Reimagined in soft shades

When he was the face of Cartier's high jewellery, the charismatic Olaf Van Cleef was a bird of passage in India. As an artist today, he devotes more and more time to India, what with the gallery he has opened for artists who cannot afford to hold shows of their own in Puducherry. His most recent show at Taj Bengal (November 3-5), like most of his exhibitions, was meant to raise funds to help Indian artists.

When he started drawing and painting a few years ago, Van Cleef expressed his fascination for the hybrid culture of India, Calcutta in particular, by bringing together the most unlikely objects, ones that were identifiably Indian that he often juxtaposed with icons and objects of Western culture, including birds and beasts from both geographical regions. It was clear that he was doing it for fun.

In the recent past, however, he has been recreating Hindu gods and goddesses in his paintings. For inspiration Van Cleef did not go to India's classical art, but popular art that people could easily identify with. So kitsch it was, but Van Cleef transformed these calendar icons in a way that only a Parisienne can. All the gaudy colours were gone. He introduced a palette of soft and soothing shades like pink and blue instead. He would paste large and small varicoloured Swarovski crystals on his paintings of Ganesh, giving them the appearance of Russian icons, only in feminine shades, instead of sombre hues.

The deities were outlined with finest-tipped pens, but unlike calendar deities, Van Cleef's gods and goddesses were accompanied by screeching parrots and flocks of birds and were decked out with bouquets, corsages and festoons, familiar devices of Western art. So in a way, Van Cleef is building bridges between the two cultures. All leavened with a soupçon of humour.


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